Top: Talia, age 12, ponders the history of the whale hunt while waiting for ice to clear in the Northwest Passage. (Photo by John Guillote)
The dinghy nosed up onto the gritty shore between two lumps of ice. I clambered over the bow, my movements restricted by so many layers of fleece and down, my Grundéns splashing loudly in the quiet, cold water.
Straightening up again, I tugged on the dinghy’s bow line while scanning in every direction for polar bears. They live here on this spit of sand dotted with whale bones, some 240 miles above the Arctic Circle.
The rest of the crew piled out of the dinghy for our daily dose of exercise. Today, it was three-on-three Wiffle Ball. These short afternoon outings had become a crucial part of our routine whenever our path forward was obstructed.
There were six of us attempting to transit the Northwest Passage aboard DogBark!, a 1990 Open 60 sailboat. The owners were taking their 12- and 10-year-old daughters on a cruise to the Mediterranean via this unusual route. My husband and I were crew. A few months prior, the six of us had left Seattle with visions of a relatively ice-free path along the northern edge of Canada, from Alaska all the way to Greenland. After all, global warming was slowly prying the Arctic sheet ice away from North America, exposing the Northwest Passage more and more.
But we had been anchored in this little bay, at the edge of nowhere, for nearly a month, waiting for a barricade of ice to clear. They were long days with little to break the monotony of the cold, dreary sky, the flat horizon of ice, and the unchanging forecast.
This island, the one that offered the best protection, was also a whaling outpost for a native community. Uninhabited while we were there, it had a line of ramshackle plywood huts. Here and there were a broken outboard, a teapot on its side, and piles of shredded tarp.
More conspicuous were the whale skulls that snaked down the shoreline. These bleached bones prompted nightly discussions about the whale hunt in the Arctic—both in the past and today—and the struggles of human survival, animal suffering and the meaning of “sustainable.”
Back on the boat, delayered and thawed out, I read the next chapter of Whales, Ice, and Men, which John R. Bockstoce wrote about the Alaskan whaling industry of the 19th and 20th centuries. Reading about these same waters, only with small, primitive ships and little more than hardtack to eat, reprioritized my difficulties. While it was frustrating not to be able to move forward, and while the freezing temperatures generated an unending stream of condensation inside DogBark!’s hull, our hot tea and fresh-baked cookies, enjoyed while snuggled next to a diesel heater with satellite weather forecasts, felt civilized.
BACK TO OUR ROOTS
Whaling was a dominant industry on the East Coast of the United States beginning in the early 1700s. Demand outpaced supply, and by 1750, the whale populations in the Atlantic Ocean were decimated. Whalers pushed farther afield, and by the early 1800s, they were sailing multiyear cruises around the horn and through the Pacific.
In 1848, Capt. Thomas Roys navigated his ship, the Superior, through the Bering Strait on rumors of a huge, but docile “polar whale” in the northern latitudes. Knowing few would be amenable to the risk inherent in his plan, he deceived the ship’s owners and concealed his intended route from the crew. When they discovered that they were headed into the Arctic, his first mate collapsed in tears, and there was a near-mutiny on board.
I could relate to the trepidation the crew must have felt, ghosting past towering icebergs and long, low stretches of sea ice shrouded in an almost perpetual summer fog. It is an intimidating experience that quickly brings into focus how small you are, but it is also breathtakingly beautiful.
Both Roys and his crew were proven right. They discovered what would become the most financially rewarding whaling grounds in the Pacific, but their discovery led to 50 years of struggle, agony and wreckage as ships pushed farther north in the name of progress and industry. During the half century following Roys’ discovery, some 2,700 whaling voyages plied the Arctic to fill their holds with precious blubber and baleen. The brutal conditions demolished more than 150 whaleships, often claiming human lives. And the once thriving populations of bowhead whales were left nearly extinct.
The impact of whalers is rife with controversy, but what is indisputable about the men is that they had to be resilient, bold, tough and resourceful. This realization was driven home when I entered my 10th day without a shower; our head, set apart from the well-heated salon, was too chilly for me to strip down for a rinse. Still, it was better than men whose day job included a regular dousing in whale blood. Did they get a single good scrub during their multiyear contract? They didn’t even have baby wipes to tide them over.
When the American whaling industry dissolved in the early 1900s, native communities had to patch their subsistence whale hunt back together, now reliant on a fraction of the population that had supported them in the past. Soon, more job opportunities led to more whaling boats on the water, and more whales killed. In 1977, the international scientific community took a stand and banned all whaling activities.
The native communities rose up in protest; the ban was a drastic disruption to their culture and primary food source. Eventually, they negotiated for hunting quotas that satisfied both the scientists and the locals. These regulations have shifted some over the years, but they still manage the Arctic whale hunt today.
Near our Wiffle Ball field, made of winter-glove bases, the whale skulls told a story of calamity, sorrow, recovery and determination. Their presence illustrates a complex and weighty history yielding to an arguably more respectful and sustainable future. They represent greed and ego, the deference and humility of man.
The ice was still refusing to cooperate with us, stubbornly holding its barricade just east of the northern Alaska-Canada border. It had taken so much time, money and effort to get here. Our eyes were still cast east, across the top of Canada and out to the northern Atlantic, but the ice just wouldn’t budge. After three weeks of afternoon diversions, and with diminishing stores of peanut butter and tortillas, we decided to turn around.
We didn’t want to get caught; Bockstoce’s book did not make wintering over sound enticing. After the sun rose briefly at noon at the end of November, it did not rise again for more than six weeks. The wind was brutal. The cold was unbearable, averaging minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit and occasionally dropping to minus 50. The debilitating monotony led some to suicide, others to insanity.
While our “iced-in experience” would be profoundly more comfortable, with headlamps, Gore-Tex, audiobooks and movies, it was still not a tempting option. We rushed south at the beginning of September. The whalers who came before us would set sail for Hawaii, and that’s what we did as well. Twelve days and 2,300 nautical miles after leaving Alaska, we approached the impossibly green peaks of Oahu.
Sailing in the Arctic pushed the boundaries of my patience, tolerance and stamina. It was taxing to be perpetually on alert for rogue chunks of ice near our anchor chain and rudder, for abrupt changes in wind direction, and for polar bears. Perhaps most challenging was the unrelenting waiting.
Even still, nothing compares to the sensation of standing on the bow, surrounded by an Arctic silence broken only by the reverberating crack and rumble of shifting ice. When a bowhead whale surfaced only a few boat lengths away, it took my breath away.
It was not my dream to transit the Northwest Passage; I was aboard DogBark! as crew. But now, after spending time there, it’s my dream, too. I want to go back.